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Is India Finally Ready to Deal with Its Rape Problem?

The country's predominately male and notoriously insensitive criminal justice system has led the new government to unveil a proposal for special units that would focus on investigating crimes against women.

Indians protesting after a gang rape in New Delhi in 2012. Photo via Flickr user Ramesh Lalwani

Earlier this week, Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh sent a memo to the chief ministers of the country's 29 states proposing the creation of a nationwide network of Investigative Units on Crimes Against Women (IUCAW). 150 individual forces (totaling 2,250 officers) would be tasked with probing all manner of violence against women, from acid attacks to human trafficking to rapes. They would also monitor the implementation of anti–gender violence laws, spread public awareness and participation in women's safety, and ensure that victims can navigate and receive justice from India's complex and clogged justice system. The memo also floated the creation of special state-level fast-track courts for gender crimes.

The proposal comes just over two years after the brutal December 2012 gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi touched off an ongoing national conversation about women's rights and safety in the country. Despite efforts to create new laws cracking down on gender-based violence, crimes against women still appear to be on the rise. Already this year, international news outlets have picked up on two cases of gang rape—one against a teenage girl perpetrated in a government office and another against a Japanese tourist held captive for a month—in the state of Bihar alone.

Much of this failure stems from the lack of staff, funding, and willpower in the predominately male and notoriously insensitive Indian justice system.

If implemented, the investigative units will attempt to address these issues by focusing their forces in the most crime-prone districts of each state and endowing them with a $13.25 million annual budget (half of which will provided by the central government). The units, staffed by reallocating existing police or creating new posts, will also require that one-third of officers be women, helping to address the biasing gender disparity in India's police force— as of 2013, only 5.33 percent of police officers nationwide were women and the best gender ratio was just 14.89 percent in Maharashtra state.

Similar forces have been successful in other countries, like Mexico, where the state of Morelos launched the Policewomen's Criminal Investigation Model Unit in November 2013. The idea behind that 26-member, all-woman team—which is given special training in gender affairs, victim assistance, and psychological help—is that their focus and gender balance can go a long way in helping women report crimes with confidence that their cases will be respected and adjudicated.

But it's easy for special sex crime units to become overwhelmed and bungle cases, as has previously been the case in India—and plenty of cities in the United States. And although this move represents a noteworthy step by the young government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it's unclear whether bold proclamations like this will see much follow-up or support.

To get a read on how local women's rights advocates feel about the possibility of new investigative units—is it a bold step and sign of hope or a PR gambit?—VICE reached out to Dr. Ranjana Kumari, a prominent women's rights activist and director of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research, a grassroots gender-based activism and political lobbying organization.

VICE: Is the proposal a welcome and potentially effective step towards addressing concerns on women's safety in India?
Dr. Ranjana Kumari: The IUCAW is a very good idea. It will strengthen the implementation mechanism at the local level. It should have been done long back but now that the government has announced it, we welcome it.

Also, I believe forensic tests and other technologies need to be introduced. Most importantly, what we are still missing is the setting up of Crisis Intervention Units in every district. This is very import because it's a one stop crisis center where all services can be brought together. That's what we are missing in this whole idea of investigation units.

Do you believe the IUCAW proposal is a serious attempt by the Modi regime to address women's rights and safety, or might it just be words?
The electoral announcements made during [Modi and his government's] speeches... are encouraging. However, it's been seven months of the government and we haven't seen much progress in terms of implementation. The intent is not missing but the implementation is missing and that's where we feel the government needs to work harder and show some results.

Do you think the states will adopt this proposal? What barriers would it face? The proposal has come from the government, which has the absolute majority in the parliament. We are looking forward for this proposal to go through.

What other measures should the Modi regime take to better address gender issues?
We would want more and more non-stop Crisis Intervention Centers [CIC], as promised, in each district. In fact, we want them at the block-level, because for a woman from a village to reach a district—especially women in crisis—is a big challenge.

We have an example [of this ideal in the] Anti–Human Trafficking Units at the state level. They're connected through a net-based technology collecting data of any lost and found person. For example, the information of a parent reporting a girl missing in Gumla [a town and district in India's Jharkhand state] gets fed into the system. The data comes to the central database to feed police stations, so that they're also informed about how many girls have been trafficked, taken away, lost, or sold.

I think a similar system can be coordinated at horizontal level for reporting crime and violence against women.

CICs should also be linked with police stations, legal aid, health services, and also with the whole idea of counseling and training. You can see how many services can be put together to create one unit.

There should [also] be coordination between states and the central government. Politically, some states don't have the same ruling parties [as those] governing the country, and that raises conflicts. There has to be a national consensus on safety and security of women.

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